History Alumni Discuss Groundbreaking Book on Race, Gender and Warfare
By: Nick Santangelo
Temple University’s College of Liberal Arts (CLA) is proud to celebrate the recent release of a new book by history PhD alumni David Ulbrich, CLA ’07, and Bob Wintermute, CLA ’06. The book, Race and Gender in Modern Western Warfare, is a groundbreaking examination of race, gender and military history throughout Western warfare from the early 19th century through to the War on Terror.
The alumni, now both history professors, recently sat down for a chat about their book. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
How do you feel now that Race and Gender in Modern Western Warfare has been published?
David Ulbrich: Extremely satisfied. Next to my dissertation, which became my first book, this has been the longest project of my career. What's great, when you get a newly published book in the mail, is it has the fresh book smell.
Bob Wintermute: As Dave indicated, it's been a very long project, at least 10 years in the writing, recomposing and editing. There were times I wondered if it was ever going to be brought to fruition. I'm very pleased to see that it has.
Congratulations to both of you on it. How did the history PhDs you both earned at Temple help prepare you for the project?
Ulbrich: I had a wonderful committee and worked with wonderful people on my coursework. History Chair and Associate Professor Jay Lockenour was especially helpful. He examined me for my doctoral field in gender and war and honed my interest and knowledge. He helped me acquire research and writing skills and how to synthesizing all these ideas.
Wintermute: I also worked with Jay Lockenour, but there were a number of other people I have to acknowledge, like the late Russell Weigley, my primary advisor. He encouraged me to develop a very open outlook towards other methodologies and disciplines and to look at my chosen topic, the field in military history, from a more holistic, open perspective.
And Temple gives students access while we're taking coursework and learning how to teach to a very diverse, multi-ethnic, multi-gendered population of students and peer faculty. The institution of Temple itself is what made such a work like this possible for me.
That’s fantastic! So let’s talk about the book. I know you wanted to fill in a gap in the history of radical and theoretical fields of race, gender and war. How does the book do that?
Ulbrich: I'm a traditionally trained military historian. I got interested in gender and then race, culture, sexuality and ethnicity as I was reading military history written by traditional “guns and drums” authors and scholars. They didn't have answers to why men fight. Yes, patriotism, but there wasn't really a gender consciousness to what they were doing. The sets of questions that feminist scholars have asked, the sets of questions that Marxist scholars have asked about, such as it's a rich man's war, but a poor man's fight.
What we're trying to do is go from military history of any sort into race and gender history and say that race and gender historians need to understand war, too. Sadly, war is part of the human condition. Big wars like the World Wars or the American Civil War, changed race relations. They changed gender relations in dramatic ways.
Wintermute: I was looking primarily at the field itself and the contributions that were and were not being made by those practicing history with regards to race and gender in the military. Also, the audience is partly undergraduate college students who are being introduced to military history kind of in a vacuum. They don’t have the full awareness of war as a social condition, how the military, as an institution, reflects the existing cultural and social frameworks of their parents’ society.
My mission was to create something that would interest military history students in the dynamics of race and gender that affect them daily. But then also to look at students who don't focus on military history and introduce them to the idea that the military matters. David mentioned Marxist theory. To kind of paraphrase Leon Trotsky, you may not care about war, but war cares about you. You should understand it and how it fits into your social framework
The book starts in the early 19th century and covers all the way up to the War on Terror. Conflicts over that timeline were obviously very different due to technological advances and other elements. How did you see race and gender's impact on and effects from war changing over those years?
Ulbrich: We started with the framework that wars and military institutions affect societies, and societies affect the way wars are fought. World War I, for example, is a big, massive war, a catastrophic event. It's maybe somewhere along the lines of an earthquake.
We saw how the fault lines of race, gender, culture, class, sexuality began to crack open. Then, we could look before the war to the pre-World War era and see what the basic beliefs were. What was normative sexuality, normative gender relations? We then tracked decades later after World War I was over to see how societies tried to rehabilitate themselves. But they couldn't change completely back to the pre-war era. So I began to look for change and then look at wars as catalysts for change. But then, also, gender and race, for example, as catalysts for warfare itself.
Wintermute: Looking towards the way that warfare and military institutions respond to social change forces over the 19th century as we enter the First World War, there's this tendency to accept that this change has happened. It was predestined, the war just accelerated it. Or, we fall victim to the chronology and an analysis in which we become so focused on a very narrow, elite perspective of the brutality of the conflict, largely coming out of British literature.
That’s another thing that we tend to overlook—how the conflict affected other cultures, other segments of Western society, how it affected non-Europeans. This was a global war. In Europe at least 15 percent of Allied soldiers participating were people of color who are generally overlooked.
Did you uncover anything particularly interesting about how rigid military structures and the traditionally masculine idea of being a war hero make it difficult for diversity to flourish in the military?
Ulbrich: Yeah, particularly in Western Europe and the United States, the concept of the war hero is a very white, heterosexual and middle class or working class symbol. So when more traditionally trained historians would look at the conflict or look at the people of the conflict, they would project white, heterosexual, middle class or working class, men under that.
I don't know that they actually knew what to do with an African American or someone who might be homosexual or an Asian Indian in Europe who might be fighting in World War I. You would have martial racists in India. You have what the Europeans viewed as effeminate races in India. Some were good soldiers, and some weren't.
Wintermute: What we realized as we dealt with masculinity and war, particularly the First World War and even back to the American Civil War, is that you have shifting perceptions on heroic masculinity based on ethnicity, class, access to resources and experiences. These definitions could shift and change over time, even when there's no more conflict.
One example of how heroic behavior is defined by a set of parameters, is the experience of the 77th Division and the 92nd Division, American units in the First World War. The 77th, the so-called “Lower East Side Division,” is made up primarily of working-class immigrants from all across the world who are recruited in New York City. The 92nd Division is an all-African American division.
Both of these units performed heroically, but they were treated differently within the United States during and after the conflict. Their heroism might be accepted during the conflict as something symbolic of the diverse American heterogeneous experience. But after the war, they become inconvenient outliers of what mainstream America wants to perceive as their own identity. So, they became tamped down or obscured after the war.
Ulbrich: The concept of heroism itself is clichéd. It's a cliché to say it's clichéd. When someone is in combat, it's this band-of-brothers mentality. And that’s sort of clichéd too. From someone like me who's a pure civilian, never served, to see someone who has earned the Congressional Medal of Honor for valor above and beyond the call of duty, I think that person is a hero. But Bobby and I have done dozens if not hundreds of world history interviews with veterans and they all say, “I'm not the hero. It's the person who didn't come home.”
Wintermute: Men and women in uniform respond to the same emotional and personality-driven cues that the rest of us do. We look at the case, surrounding General George Patton. In Sicily, where, as we see in the film starring George C. Scott, historical records show us he comes into the first aid tent, confronts soldiers that are broken down. They're clearly suffering from PTSD. He slaps them, calls them cowards, tells them to get out in the field and fight. And yet, those same men had exhibited heroic behavior prior to that incident. Actually, they're at that zero point of what more can I have to give? They're not cowards. They're men who have seen all that they can take.
It's those Western constraints on violence and on civil behavior that we value in the civilian world that cause them to say, “I've had enough. I'm done.” Are these men cowards? No, they're heroes, perhaps. Well, certainly. Again, it's a matter of perspective and how they're seen.
It can be tempting for people to depict social progress as a continuous forward movement, but it’s usually more complicated than that. Did your research uncover any major significant setbacks for diversity in war?
Ulbrich: The short version answer is yes. The nonwhite, the non-male, the non-heterosexual, the non-Protestant or the non-European are sometimes either seen as inferior, or as weaker, or as less intelligent. Sadly, that’s the contextualized view of African Americans in the 19th and much of the 20th century. They have to figure out a way to break out of that mold, how to earn their respect, but they have to overcome lots of biases and prejudices.
Then in other cases, for example, Native Americans in World War II in the United States—the U.S. Marines did not want African Americans or Philippine Americans or anybody other than Caucasians in the Marines, but the Marine Corp would accept Native Americans. Why? Because they were seen as warriors, and Marines are warriors. This is sort of a positive view of stereotyping, but it's still racial stereotyping.
You think of Ira Hayes, who was one of the flag raisers on Iwo Jima. He was a Native American. He was congratulated, and he became a hero in the minds of everyone in America. Then, he couldn't handle the fame. He ended up drinking himself to death 10 years later. It's really very sad. Anyway, there are expectations that are positive and negative.
Wintermute: People are largely uncomfortable with the idea that war and military institutions drive social progress. In a way, I understand that. It does appear to be counterintuitive that positive social change and transformation come out of conflict. Or, the idea that a socially conservative institution like the contemporary Western military will be an agent for change.
But I think the reality is that it does change social constructs of racial identity and gender identity and sharply influences factors of social inclusion for groups that have previously been excluded: African Americans, Asian Americans, women, people who practice same-sex relationships, transgender people.
The change does not come automatically. President Harry S. Truman in principal and reality set out in 1948 to desegregate the American military. It took that extreme step for the military to move forward in terms of racial equality. Even then, the military pushed back, and you didn't see desegregation across the institution until at least two to three years later. Even then, there were longer cases of resistance.
The book's final chapter talks about the current challenges Western societies are facing in cultivating diversity and tolerance in military structures. What are some of those challenges?
Ulbrich: I'm going to bridge that to a slightly different focus. One of the things that I took lead on were the sections dealing with genocide and rape. In Rwanda and in Cambodia and in the Balkans in the last 20 or 25 years we see that rape and genocide have become very closely related and what scholars have called the weaponization of rape to terrorize, not just the victims but also to dishonor and show the men in their lives to be incapable of protecting them. Also, if those women who have been raped become pregnant, then those babies are mixed race and not purebred of the minority. This is a very diabolical and very demented movement.
This is one of the really big challenges, I think, that all societies have, but particularly in this modern era where it seems that ever since World War I, World War II, the more traditional limits on the brutality on conflict have been taken off. The limits have been removed. It's not that war wasn't nasty in the Middle Ages. It was, but the threshold of harshness and brutality in war has just reached an unheard of level. That disturbs me profoundly.
Wintermute: As we look at issues surrounding sexual violence as a component of genocide and ethnic cleansing, a tremendous factor in this development is the continued longevity of ideas and notions that many people in polite society have consigned to the trash bin of history. Issues about racial superiority and about male superiority are actually extremely influential and have a tremendous impact in societies outside of our own. Combine that with the weaponization of discourse. These ideas become infectious upon target audiences and facilitate a much greater willingness to reintroduce this hyper criminal behavior in the war.
Dave mentioned Rwanda, and the Tutsi minority were criminalized and demonized by the Hutu majority and turned into this readily accessible target for massacre, for genocide, and sexual assault. We see the same thing, also, in Serbia in the 1990s. I would argue in many other conflicts since then including, to a degree, we see similar outcomes committed by the insurgency against Iraqi civilians in the 2000s. Discourse has become a weapon; a strong tool that can be used to promote a reversal of the civility that we've come to take for granted in warfare.
Ulbrich: Writing that last chapter was hard. It was depressing. We had to plumb the depths of current attitudes and actions. It really was a depressing chapter to write.
Wintermute: Yeah, no one likes to look at their society in a mirror and see it's not, after all, as good as we would like to imagine. It was pretty rough.